Have You Not Heard? SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 5
1) In last week’s passage, Jesus begins his public ministry by directly confronting an “unclean spirit,” thereby establishing himself as “the Holy One of God,” a healer and liberator opposed to the world’s death-dealing dynamics. This week, Mark continues to develop this opening theme, filling in more substance and color about the mode, purpose, and fruit of this healing, liberating work.
2) In this week’s passage, Mark introduces a key motif in his Gospel, the so-called “Messianic secret,” or Jesus’ repeated insistence - to demons and disciples alike (take note!) - that his true identity not be disclosed. This secrecy is part of Mark’s reinterpretation of messiahship: the Anointed One will not come in an expected, conspicuous form (say, as a triumphant military leader), but rather as a humble, suffering servant, ultimately revealed as Messiah through his death, resurrection, and subsequent community - the church - who will carry on his work.
3) The Book of Isaiah is a layered library in itself, and this week’s passage comes from the layer often called “Second Isaiah,” a section likely written during and just after Israel’s exile in Babylon. Chapter 40 is Second Isaiah’s introductory overture of good news and assurance, in which the prophet proclaims that God cares for the people of Israel and will restore them - and that God’s sovereignty as “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (v. 28) is more than sufficient to deliver on the promise of restoration. The opening section of this larger passage, Isaiah 40:1-11, is the declaration of comfort and hope associated with Advent and Christmas.
1) According to Mark, the first day of Jesus’ ministry was a Sabbath day: he begins by teaching “with authority” in the synagogue, then healing a man possessed by an unclean spirit - and now, as the day comes to a close, healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever. Taken as a whole, this first day prefigures major themes - healing, restoration, hope - that will feature at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
2) As we have seen, one of those themes is opposition to death-dealing forces; the Holy One of God comes as a healer and a liberator. And while the episode with the possessed man provides a sense of what this freedom is “freedom from,” this week’s story points toward what it is “freedom for.” The passage pivots around four key verbs: proserchomai (“to come near”), krateo (“to take hold”), egeiro (“to waken, to raise”) and diakoneo (“to serve, minister”). The first two verbs go together: Jesus “comes near” Peter’s mother-in-law, close enough to “take hold” of her hand. Mark emphasizes the power of touch more than other Jewish healing stories in the ancient world typically do, including the idea (as we’ll see in later passages) that Jesus is unafraid to touch and be touched by the supposedly “unclean.” Having taken her hand, Jesus “raises her up.” The same word (egeiro) is used of Jesus himself at the resurrection - it’s there in the famous line, “He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6) - and so the term evokes a renewed strength, a reinvigoration, a reawakening, a restoration, a return. And finally, what is the woman renewed for? For diakonos, “ministry, service,” the same root that gives us the word “deacon” (she is the original deacon!). What’s more, the word diakonos literally means “to kick up dust” - as in an active, practical, on-the-move, change-the-world sort of work. In short, she is lifted up to serve. She is freed for ministry, to kick up some dust and get some things done. She is the original pioneer in the tradition of the anonymous woman who causes a little dust-up near the end of Mark’s Gospel by anointing Jesus (“what she has done will be told in remembrance of her,” Mark 14:3-9), and also of the group of women at the crucifixion who stay and keep watch and remain with the vandalized body, even as the male disciples panic and flee (Mark 15:40-41; the Greek word translated as “provided for” is diakoneo).
3) Illness debilitates the body; it can also cut a person off from his or her social life and contributions to community - and this can feel like a loss of dignity or purpose. If we take Peter’s mother-in-law seriously as a model of ministry, the first deacon (or dust-kicker-upper!), we can see that her healing is also a restoration to dignity. Hospitality was highly prized in the ancient world, and for early Christians, to be hospitable in a way that advanced the Jesus movement was both an art and an honor. Thus for Mark, the healing in this story is not only a matter of a fever departing; it’s also a matter of restoration to community, and of participation in the movement. This social dimension of healing is a key theme to which Mark will return again and again.
4) In need of restoration himself (physical, spiritual, vocational?), Jesus retreats to the wilderness to pray - recalling his preparatory 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism just a few verses earlier (Mark 1:12-13). Taken together, these passages point to the renewing powers of wilderness; the ancient cycle of work and rest, engagement and retreat, action and contemplation; and the need for those laboring to restore the world to seek out regular, intentional practices of restoration themselves.
5) This passage in Isaiah is one of the Bible’s exceptional hymns to God’s greatness as witnessed through the glorious wonders of creation. The prophet’s point is that this greatness should give us comfort and faith in God’s care for us, regardless of the apparent difficulties we may face. Have you not heard? God is the incomparable Creator of all things, from the supernova to the butterfly’s wing, the rings of Saturn to the spots on the leopard. Is God then unable to care for you? Look to the heavens: the stars in the sky are not other gods (as some contemporary religions then thought), but rather marvels God created simply by calling their names. Have you not heard the psalmist sing? “God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; God gives to all of them their names” (Ps 147:3-5). This creation-through-speech evokes Genesis 1 - and it resonates with Mark 1, too, as Jesus drives out the unclean spirit merely by speaking, and heals Peter’s mother-in-law through gracious, life-giving touch. Have you not heard? You may be laid low, but have courage! God will take your hand and lift you up (Mark); God will renew your strength, and you’ll mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah)!
1) For Mark, this first day of ministry is an iconic picture of Jesus’ mission as a whole: the Holy One of God comes to confront death-dealing forces for the sake of life-giving restoration. Jesus will be resurrected later in the story, but his life’s mission is all about resurrection (literally “standing again”) in the here and now. He comes to lift us up into service, to reawaken us into dignity, community, and genuine health. And please note, Jesus doesn’t so much say this with words as demonstrate it with action. His work is tangible and intimate; he is unafraid to come near where others fear to tread. He offers and enacts a “freedom from” bondage and ruin, and at the same time a “freedom for” service, ministry, and kicking up some dust. And since this first day of his ministry is on a Sabbath day, Jesus thereby demonstrates the true meaning of Sabbath: a day for restoration, for health, for resurrection, for joy, and in that sense for anticipating the Great Sabbath to come. In this way, through his ministry Jesus proclaims the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Jubilee of Jubilees, the dawn of a new era: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).
2) Some listeners may well wonder whether or not we are required to believe miracle stories like this one - and this kind of doubt puts us in good company! As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth has pointed out, miracle stories are designed to astonish - and astonishment, after all, is a blend of belief and disbelief. Accordingly, Barth contends that Christian readers should neither merely “believe” miracle stories (for that would mean we aren’t truly astonished by them) nor merely “disbelieve” them (ditto); rather, these stories should leave us continually “taken aback.” In this way, we may truly take our place among the “amazed” crowds, and turn our attention to the deeper dimensions of what Jesus’ mission means for us today. What death-dealing forces should we tangibly and practically confront? What life-giving service should we tangibly and practically undertake? What dust, good deacons, do we need to kick up around here?
3) As we seek to answer these questions, Mark and Isaiah give us guidance. Following Jesus means having the courage to confront forces of ruin; it means coming near enough to tenderly bind up wounds; it means not only proclaiming resurrection but living out lives of resurrection, for ourselves and for others; and it means doing all of this with our actions as much as with our words. Jesus comes as a healer and liberator, invites us to join him - and promises to accompany us along the way, caring for us as we confront, come near, take hold, lift up, and serve. A great challenge, it’s true, the greatest of our lives - but God’s love, companionship, and power is more than enough. Have you not heard?